Thai Horse

Thai Horse

After enjoying Chameleon, I decided to try another thriller by William Diehl: Thai Horse, published in 1987.

The novel concerns the trials and tribulations of Christian Hatcher, an ultra-lethal shadow operative who has been doing dirty deeds for a deep black military outfit called the “Shadow Brigade” since the Vietnam War. Hatcher’s Brigade director is a devious man named Sloan, who was responsible for Hatcher getting locked up in a brutal Central American prison for the past three years. Sloan has evidence that an old Annapolis buddy of Hatcher’s named Cody—who was allegedly killed when his plane was shot down in ‘Nam back in ’73—is still alive and may be involved in organized crime in Southeast Asia. Cody is the son of a revered four-star general with terminal cancer who wishes to see his son one last time. To avoid any embarrassing publicity, the job is given to the Shadow Brigade, and Sloan promptly gets Hatcher released from prison and offers him the mission.

(As a side note, I liked Hatcher’s description of Sloan:

A hundred years ago, thought Hatcher, Sloan would have been hawking elixirs from the back of a wagon or selling shares in the Brooklyn Bridge. Now he sold dirty tricks with fictions of adventure and patriotism, seducing wide-eyed young men and women into the shadow wars, to become assassins, saboteurs, gunrunners, second-story men, safe crackers, even mercenaries, all for the glory of flag and country. Hatcher had met Sloan in the time of his innocence and had bought the lie.

Let’s face it, it’s shady recruiters like Sloan who make the shadow-fiction world go round!)

Hatcher gets on the case, and soon lands in Hong Kong, an old haunt where he once infiltrated the criminal underworld as a Shadow Brigade operative. He makes contact with an old American friend named “China” Cohen, a likeable scoundrel who is now the “white Tsu Fi”—the legendary boss of a Hong Kong triad. It turns out that the leaders of the most powerful triad have good personal reasons to want Hatcher dead, and he soon finds himself the target of a big-time hit. This leads to a scene reminiscent of the assault on Tony Montana’s estate in the classic 1983 film Scarface, as black-turtlenecked, submachine gun-toting hitmen storm Cohen’s walled compound.

Following a lead that a Dutch smugger may have information about Cody, Hatcher, Cohen and an old Asian flame named Daphne head upriver into outlaw territory ruled by the notoriously brutal gangster Sam-Sam Sam. Here the movie that came to mind was Apocalypse Now!, as the crew encounters colorful, violent characters of various races and nationalities on the river, Hatcher finds his target and things go sideways in an explosively bloody way.

The intrigue gets ever more complex as people near Hatcher are knocked off, Sloan continues to be devious, drug lords prepare a massive shipment, a terrorist attack hits Paris, the rival triad leader hunts Hatcher, Hatcher hunts Cody, a group of colorful expatriate Vietnam vets gets involved, and it all somehow revolves around the meaning of the mysterious term “Thai Horse”. Is it Cody? Someone else? An organization? An operation? A drug? Or just an old Thai legend? All is revealed in the last 60 or 70 pages, as Hatcher solves the mysteries of Cody and the Thai Horse, his beef with the triad comes to an ultra-violent climax, and various personal scores are settled in brutal ways.

Like Chameleon, Thai Horse is reminiscent of  Eric Van Lustbader’s work from that era, and both authors were clearly influenced by thriller mega-seller Robert Ludlum. Like them, Diehl gets a little melodramatic, wordy and implausible at times, but he knows how to keep the pages turning and construct a complex but entertaining yarn. If you like shadow warfare with an Asian flavor, deadly assassins, international conspiracies, war-time backstories, strong characters, brutal violence, stylish romance, a dash of explicit sex and just enough realism to make the story plausible without becoming dull, you should enjoy this novel.

Get a copy of Thai Horse here.

Black Heart

Black Heart

Eric Van Lustbader stormed onto the bestseller charts in 1980 with the publication of The Ninja, a dark, sophisticated, pulpy thriller that perfectly anticipated the obsession with ninjas and all things Japanese in the 1980s. With that novel, Van Lustbader established the elements of a formula that he would cash in on for many years: a Western protagonist schooled in Eastern martial arts, a sinister super-assassin from the East, a global conspiracy rooted in historical events spanning East and West, Eastern mysticism and mythology, martial arts violence, explicit sex, dark psychology, intense romance, and a melodramatic writing style that tries to elevate all of this to high literature. I have to admit, I’m a sucker for this formula.

Van Lustbader’s second novel in this vein, Black Heart, published in 1983, is perhaps his  most ambitious. It’s a very long (700 pages), complex narrative with numerous threads and characters that span Cambodia in the early 1960s to the USA in the early 1980s, by way of the Vietnam War and the Khmer Rouge reign of terror. It begins with the assassination of the governor of New York during the throes of sexual passion by a mystic assassin named Khieu. It so happens that the close friend and political advisor of the victim is a man named Tracy Richter, an ex-Special Forces soldier and ex-member of a clandestine outfit called “the foundation”. When Richter is informed that the foundation suspects the governor didn’t die of a heart attack but was in fact assassinated, he takes it upon himself to solve the mystery and track down the culprit.

As the story unfolds, we learn that there’s a sinister network call the “angka” originating with U.S. Special Forces in the Cambodian jungle that by the early 1980s has infiltrated the highest corridors of power in D.C. Among the angka’s leaders are the head of  a corporation that develops advanced weapons systems, a senator who is a leading presidential candidate and hardline anti-terrorist, and the director of the CIA. These men are involved in an all-too-plausible conspiracy: secretly sponsoring terrorist attacks around the world in an effort to come to power on an aggressive anti-terrorist platform. They also have connections to Richter, the foundation, and various other players in a way that makes everything very personal.

The main character of this tale is really the assassin Khieu; in addition to his lethal present-day operations as as assassin for the angka, we get many flashbacks to his experiences in Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge’s brutal rise to power. Van Lustbader explores how a man who began as a humble Buddhist with humanitarian ideals could turn into a murderous revolutionary and finally an almost inhuman mystical assassin. It’s an intriguing look into  the “black heart” of his antagonist—one of Van Lustbader’s biggest strengths as a writer.

By the last quarter of the book there are so many plot threads running that you almost need a spreadsheet to keep track of them—old vendettas, political agendas, terrorist plots, criminal enterprises, police investigations, romantic dramas, spiritual traumas, family honor—but they all converge toward the end in a suitably dark, violent and mystical climax.

One of the most interesting aspects of this novel for the student of shadow warfare is how Van Lustbader anticipates the “War on Terror” 20 years in advance. The senator’s plan to attack terrorists worldwide, invade Islamic countries, take their oil and ensure America’s global dominance sounds eerily similar to the program that “neoconservatives” would roll out after 9/11/2001. Black Heart offers a neocon conspiracy that will make “9/11 was an inside job” conspiracy theorists nod in understanding. As the senator muses:

His smile widened now as he thought of 31 August and Macomber’s plan. Because of that, there would be no opposition to him at all. By then America would have had its first taste of a terrorist assault on its home soil and it would mobilize.

Gottschalk rejoiced, not only for himself but for the entire country. It was just like the days before America entered World War II: it took great hardship and some loss of life for the sleeping giant to be awakened. But once aroused, Gottschalk knew, no nation on earth could stand before her. Let the terrorists beware. As of this night, their days are numbered. Attacked on its own soil, America could then send out its strike forces into the Middle East, the oil-rich nations of the Gulf, the obliteration of the known terrorist camps, the destruction of already shaky Islamic governments. Oil for the cities of America and, with it, an end to the Soviet Union’s stranglehold on much of the world.

In many ways this novel is a re-telling of The Ninja, with a Cambodia/Vietnam War backstory instead of a Japan/World War II one, the dramatic opening assassination of a VIP, the discovery by the shadow operator protagonist of foul play involving an Eastern killing technique, the detective work with a gruff New York cop to identify the assassin, the uncovering of a vast conspiracy by Western industrialists and politicians, the love interest who gets caught up in the plot, the twisted mysticism, horrific violence and extreme sexuality of the villains. Like I said, this was Van Lustbader’s formula in the 1980s—it’s ambitious, intense stuff, though at times over-written, implausible, melodramatic and pornographic. He easily could have trimmed a hundred pages off this novel and made it a tighter read, but in an era when Stephen King, Robert Ludlum and Tom Clancy were at the top of the bestseller charts, these fat, complex thrillers were all the rage. And once in a while, if they’re well done, they’re fun to read. Black Heart is well done; it’s 1980s Van Lustbader at his most epic. If the style is to your taste, you should enjoy this novel.

Get a copy of Black Heart here.

Stony Man #27: Asian Storm

Stony Man #27: Asian Storm

After reading a lot of cynical, morally ambiguous Shadow-fiction recently, I decided to try a good old men’s adventure novel, where the good guys are all good, the bad guys are all bad, and the job of the former is to blow away the latter with .44 magnums, Galil sniper rifles, and whatever else is handy.

Such is the world of Mack Bolan—granddaddy of the men’s adventure genre, who sold millions of books and spawned dozens of imitators in the 1970s and 80s. Bolan began his paperback career as a vigilante known as the “Executioner” – a one-man army fighting a holy war against organized crime. By the 1980s, as Ronald Reagan was rekindling the Cold War with the Soviet Union, killing off mafia thugs was no longer enough for Bolan, so he expanded his war to include international terrorists and enemy spies. That was when Bolan joined the “Stony Man” organization, a deep black agency tasked with taking the gloves off and waging war on the KGB and their terrorist allies as ferociously as Bolan had previously taken on the mafia.

Unable to resist the prospect of Bolan matching wits with ninja assassins, I picked up Stony Man 27: Asian Storm, by Jerry Van Cook, and gave it a quick read. The story concerns the machinations of three ambitious Japanese brothers, members of an old Samurai family who have decided that the time has come to carve out an empire in Southeast Asia. Somehow, they have managed to engineer an alliance among several nations in the region, and are on the verge of uniting them into the Republic of Tanaka, which we’re told would be the world’s third great power, after the USA and China. To accomplish this, the Tanaka brothers employ the services of a ninja clan to do their dirty work, just as many Samurai families did in old Japan. The ninja clan is lead by a particularly nasty piece of work named Yamaguchi, who is not only a highly skilled shadow warrior and master of disguise, but a sex fiend who enjoys killing women and children in the line of duty. On the Tanakas’ orders, the ninjas are assassinating high-ranking Chinese leaders, framing the CIA in the process and bringing the USA and China to the brink of war. They are also stirring up deadly riots and committing terrorist acts stateside designed to inflame Asian opinion against the USA. The various plot threads come together nicely, as Stony Man teams Able Team and Phoenix Force race to stop the Tanakas from creating a perfect “Asian storm” and plunging the world into war.

You don’t read a novel like this for its high levels of Shadow op realism. Bolan, like Joseph Rosenberger’s Death Merchant and Shadow Warrior, has a superhuman ability to engage rooms full of armed men and come out unscathed, while leaving a room full of corpses in his wake. This is a skill the ninja themselves are legendary for; in fact, throughout this book Bolan and other members of the Stony Man crew manage to “out-ninja the ninjas”. Team members pull off several infiltration, diversion and disguise ops; Bolan completes a particularly impressive burglary using a grappling hook gun to cross between buildings, cut through a window, steal data from the ninja boss’s computer and get away via rope as automatic gun fire rains down on him. But at the end of the day, Bolan is more Dirty Harry than Sho Kosugi, and he prefers to settle things in a straightforward Western manner: by blasting the bad guys through the heart with his trusty Desert Eagle .44 Magnum.

For what it was and the time invested, Asian Storm didn’t disappoint. If you don’t expect literary subtlety or nuanced characters and treat this like a men’s comic book, you should have a good time. Get a copy of Asian Storm here.

River of Darkness

River of Darkness

James Grady stormed onto the spy fiction scene in 1974 with his debut novel Six Days of the Condor (basis for the classic film Three Days of the Condor), a novel I greatly enjoyed for its paranoid take on America’s shadow government, its memorable characters Ronald Malcolm and the French assassin Joubert, and its brilliant concept of “Section 9, Department 17” which I have written about previously here.

Grady wrote a sequel to Six Days of the Condor called Shadow of the Condor the following year, which I read years ago and found rather forgettable. I recently decided to give Grady another try with his much meatier offering from 1992 called River of Darkness (aka The Nature of the Game). This is Grady’s attempt to write a sweeping, epic novel about American shadow wars from the 1960s to the 1980s, as told through the experiences of ex-Green Beret and CIA operative Jud Stuart.

The narrative switches frequently between Stuart’s current travails as a Jason Bournesque agent who has become expendable and is on the run, to the efforts of an honorable ex-marine tasked by shadowy D.C. players with tracking Stuart down and taking him out, to flashbacks to Stuart’s earlier adventures as a shadow operative. The first flashback is especially intense, as Jud is air-dropped behind enemy lines in 1960s Laos and has to survive a close encounter with Pathet Lao guerrillas. By the early 1970s Stuart is working for a shadowy outfit run by rogue American generals, taking part in everything from the Pinochet coup to spying on the Nixon White House, raiding Russians in Afghanistan, drug-running and assassinating VIPs. But Stuart eventually becomes a liability who knows far too much, so he becomes a hunted man as the novel opens.

The flashbacks to Jud’s covert operations were the novel’s highlights for me, both for the riveting action sequences and the authentic, historically relevant nature of the ops. This is where Grady, a former investigative journalist, shines: he gives the reader a sense of what really goes on behind the headlines, in the deep shadows where America’s secret wars are won and lost.

Unfortunately, there is a lot more going on in this novel than just Jud’s black ops, such as banal romances, family dramas, dull D.C. intrigues and fairly generic characters. It feels like Grady was trying to emulate best-selling spy novelists of the time like Ludlum, Clancy and Van Lustbader, who favored sprawling, complex, bloated epics over the leaner, more focused thrillers of yesteryear (like Six Days of the Condor). While I’ve enjoyed more than a few fat thrillers over the years, I thought this one had a little too much going on, and too many characters and machinations that just weren’t very interesting.

All in all, I’d say River of Darkness is about half a riveting novel with authentic detail and gripping action, and about half a rather plodding and padded effort to make the novel more epic and Ludlumesque. It’s still a cut above run of the mill and comic book spy thrillers, and worth reading if you’re interested in a realistic fictional take on some of the dark goings-on in the Vietnam to Iran-Contra era in the name of American freedom and security.

Get a copy of River of Darkness here.

Modern Ninja Warfare

Modern Ninja Warfare

One of my long-time obsessions is ninjutsu—not the ahistorical variety popularized by the likes of Masaaki Hatsumi and Stephen K. Hayes since the 1960s, which turned the ninja into black-gi wearing martial arts enthusiasts who rarely leave the dojo—but the real, historical art of the ancient Japanese shadow warriors. Unfortunately, until about a decade ago, most of the available ninjutsu literature reflected the bogus version of the art popularized by the “ninja boom”, and authentic material was almost non-existent in the English language. Fortunately, thanks primarily to Antony Cummins and his translation team, all the major original ninjutsu scrolls have been translated into English so we can now learn about the legendary ninja in their own words.
Cummins’ recent publication, Modern Ninja Warfare, is an outstanding addition to this project. Cummins has created something unique: a compendium of ninja skills taken directly from the historical ninjutsu scrolls, accompanied by a discussion of their modern shadow warrior equivalents.

The book starts with a nice overview of who the ninja really were and what they did. We learn that they engaged in the full range of shadow ops, as spies, commandos, scouts, arsonists, assassins, psychological warriors and terrorists. We get a similar overview of the ninja’s modern equivalents, the special forces, spies and hackers who engage in the same types of activities. Subsequent chapters compare everything from hand-to-hand fighting techniques to commando raids, secure communications, infiltrating buildings, escape and evasion, surveillance, ambushes, cross-country movement, assassination and torture. There is an entire chapter on spycraft, which was the bread-and-butter of the historical ninja. In one section I found particularly interesting, Cummins notes that the path of the shinobi no mono (ninja) was recognized in their own scrolls as a “horrific path”:

Shinobi took part in murder, lies, deceit, scandal, disguise, propaganda, sex, slavery, the killing of innocent bystanders, robbery and all the deeds at the depths of human society. They were the dark side of the samurai “coin,” not the antithesis of the samurai themselves.

Shadow warfare has always been a dark and dirty business, and no one knew that better than the ninja!

I also appreciated the last chapter of the book, “The Way of the Mind”, which discusses the psychological and spiritual dimensions of shadow warfare. This is an area that is often neglected in the modern literature, but which the ninja of old knew was critical to success. Their very name was derived from the word “nin”, which has several connotations, including “stealth”, “perseverance” and “forbearance”. They knew how to cultivate these qualities, to exploit the mental weakness of others and to use rituals to acquire inner strength. To operate in the shadows; to endure and overcome all hardships; to control emotions and urges; to exploit weakness and use rituals—these are the mental keys to the Way of the Shadows in all ages, whether they are medieval ninja or modern spy-commandos.

Overall, I found the book quite interesting and picked up many new tricks and ideas. It was instructive to see how the principles of the shadow warrior arts haven’t changed over the centuries, though the forms have changed to incorporate new technologies and cultures. This isn’t a highly detailed military instruction manual, but an overview and primer on the full range of shadow warfare skills and tactics practiced both by the ninja and modern operatives. As such, Modern Ninja Warfare is a worthy addition to the library of any student of ninjutsu or shadow warfare.
Get a copy of the book here.